23 November 2017
INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Betty Kathungu
Earlier in the year, Betty Kathungu-Furet’s Swahili comedy Kizingo won Best Feature Film at the 2017 Riverwood Awards, a win that couldn’t have come at a better time for this ambitious filmmaker who is hoping to revolutionise the industry by telling stories never told before.
Of Kizingo, Betty – who is the producer – says, “This is a story of two kids, Soni and Joni, who, while playing in the forest, come across a huge bag of stolen cash. A cat and mouse chase ensues between the kids and the thieves as the latter try to recover their loot but the kids outwit them.” Watch now »
“While traditional TV and scheduled programming will never totally die, more and more people prefer to watch what they want when they want to. For us content creators, Showmax has opened doors and avenues, given us additional and alternative markets and platforms to reach our audiences,” says Betty.
You started out as an actor; at what point did you realise that you wanted to venture into production?
I always knew from a very early age that I wanted to work in TV and film; I created stories in my head and read voraciously. So when I finished high school in Embu, I came to Nairobi and went to the Kenya National Theatre to try my hand at acting, but I don’t think I was a very good actor. After about five years of acting without much success, I decided to go to film school and learn the technical aspect of storytelling in the audio-visual medium. When I graduated from film school, I immediately acquired my first camera and set of lights, and went ahead to create and produce my own content. Apart from having an organised mind to lead and inspire a team, I’m also creative. So running a production house came naturally to me.
How has your acting experience contributed to your success as a director and a producer?
While I was an actor, I was curious; I observed directors, cameramen and the whole production unit, and I asked questions and absorbed knowledge. So when I went to film school, it was more of a masterclass because I had picked up a lot from my years as an actor.
In your opinion, what’s the first lesson of production?
I believe in story before anything else. It does not matter if you have the fanciest equipment or the best actors in the world, if your story is substandard, your film will bomb. I have three simple rules for any would-be producer – identify the right story, choose the right people to do the job and equip them with everything they require to do their job to the best of their ability. In my opinion, if any producer does these things, they have the recipe to tell a successful story.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in this industry? And what more can we do as a country to overcome those challenges?
At the beginning, access to network executives to showcase my content and pilots was a big hurdle. It was a clique of people who always worked together and penetration was difficult. I shot more than six pilots before M-Net picked up Mazagazaga. Since then, it has become easier because my show was a success. The new crop of network executives is more approachable because to them, it is the content that matters and not personal relationships.
Good content is hard to come by. We still have not mastered the art of storytelling. It is a long process to write a good story. It can be tedious. It needs time, commitment and a lot of work.
Financing is of course an issue too. Content is expensive to produce and budgets are low. However, we at Furet Films have decided to put a positive spin on it. It means we just have to be more innovative and broaden our horizons, be more creative and find newer ways of doing this business.
As always, being a woman in a position of leadership comes with its own particular challenges. We are still a patriarchal society and men find it hard, unnatural even, to take orders from women. It has taken time but I have been lucky to find a business partner who does not look at me as a woman, but as an equal in the creative and business arena.
What inspired the movie Kizingo?
Simiyu Barasa, the writer, wanted to tell a simple story that would resonate with a general family audience, and a story that had children in leading roles; something that is not common in Kenya. However, some bits of it are inspired by his own personal experiences.
Kizingo won Best Feature Film at this year’s Riverwood Awards. Was this something you anticipated?
We knew we had made a good film and that it was funny. It had a moral lesson without being preachy and it would appeal to any demographic. But we also knew that we were not the only filmmakers who had made good films in that period. It was a pleasant surprise to win Best Feature Film because comedies do not often win top prizes and also because we were in competition with some really good films from Kenya and the rest of Africa. Since then, Kizingo has continued to make waves in India, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and in other local festivals.
How did you feel about this win? Has it opened more doors for you in the industry?
What I felt more than anything else after winning Best Picture at Riverwood was validation. Finally, after 23 years in the business, my work had spoken for itself. It put a stamp on the belief in myself that I am a good storyteller and can produce a film that can win in a competition with my peers. It re-energised me and made me hungry to do even more, even better and compete in an even bigger ring. It made me realise that my secret dream of winning an Oscar is not a far-fetched pipe dream. It is actually a possibility.
What did you enjoy most about working on this project? Any challenges?
Kizingo was special because I had not done a film for over seven years and films were always my first love. It was also great because I had been looking to work with an exceptional writer/director and Simiyu and I were a perfect fit. Working with child actors was also particularly thrilling for me.
We call Kizingo an experiment of telling Kenyan stories simply but telling them well. Anything we faced that would be considered a challenge, we faced it and solved it with a new and fresh approach, much like people who were doing this for the first time, despite that our combined experience is probably 36 years.
Soon after its release, Kizingo went on a publicity tour through different Kenyan counties. How effective was this marketing strategy?
We decided to go on a fact-finding mission across the country. We wanted to know if our audiences know that there are local films. Do they watch these local films? What access do they have to local films? Would they pay to watch and if yes, how much? What options do we filmmakers have if we want to screen our films to general audiences across the country? What kind of support is available to us from corporates and government? We travelled to around 12 counties and what we learnt is invaluable and will inform how we screen our films in future – Kenyans would love to see more films and it is up to us to take the films to them.
What more can filmmakers do to reach out to audiences across the country?
The only sure way we as filmmakers can reach our audiences is through box office screenings. Yes, we do not have cinemas across the country – I think we have less than 30 screens spread across 3 major towns – but we have social halls, school halls, market places … we should endeavour to screen our films in all and any spaces available. Our audiences love local content. It is evidenced by how they watch the local programmes on traditional TV. We are doing them a disservice by not showing them our films.
Mazagazaga is a satirical look at the simplest life issues. Through the eyes of Kokoro, the main actor, the show discusses issues in a way that makes audiences look at themselves and see how they approach life.
Kizingo and Mazagazaga are both comedies, a genre quite popular in Kenya. What is the role of comedy in highlighting serious societal issues?
Comedy allows society to laugh at itself. Introspection is hard. If we approach issues by hard selling and “scolding” people, the natural reaction is self-defence and shying away from confronting the problems of society. Comedy makes society look at itself truthfully and attempt to solve its problems.
What project are you currently working on?
For the last two years, Furet Films has been working on what we consider to be the biggest film to come out of Kenya yet. We are working on Jomo, a biopic of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. The movie will focus on Jomo the man, his call to action that propelled him to join the struggle for independence, his involvement in the freedom struggle in Kenya and his rise to president. A lot of information on the struggle for independence has not been taught in our schools. We have done research for around 18 months and Simiyu has written a brilliant script. This film is not political in any way; it is a chronicle of history. We hope to begin filming in mid-2018.
Which popular TV show would you like to be part of if given a chance?
I love Sue na Jonnie on M-Net’s Maisha Magic East. It’s funny, well acted and the content is really good.
Which famous filmmaker inspires you?
My favorite international filmmaker is Woody Allen. I love him because I think he is an exceptional storyteller. He does not dwell on what would be considered “world issues” like war or politics. I love his writing, his simplicity in production; he does not do anything to impress anyone. He just tells stories.